Italy Declares War on Austria-Hungary

The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that shaped our modern world. Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 183rd installment in the series.

May 23, 1915: Italy Declares War on Austria-Hungary

While soldiers endured hardships on every front of the Great War, the prize for worst physical conditions probably goes to the Italian front, where the basic miseries of trench warfare were translated to Alpine terrain, alternating seasonally between bare rock and snow and ice. In addition to the obvious threat posed by hypothermia, in this extreme environment artillery duels produced disproportionate casualties thanks to clouds of razor-sharp fragments of shattered stone.

The Waiting Game

Considering the huge losses already suffered by all the belligerent nations, in retrospect it seems insane for any neutral country to voluntarily embroil itself in the maelstrom of the First World War, as Italy did with its declaration of war against Austria-Hungary on May 23, 1915. However Italian leaders believed the Allies were winning the war, and reasoned that they could both speed the final decision and pick up territory along the way. Nor were they alone: in 1915 and 1916 Italy would be joined by Bulgaria and Romania, which waded in (on opposing sides) motivated by similar dreams of aggrandizement. All would pay for their ambitions with rivers of blood.

Before the war Italy was technically aligned with Austria-Hungary in the defensive Triple Alliance with Germany, but their relationship was complicated by the presence of ethnic Italian populations in the Dual Monarchy, including the provinces of Trentino and Trieste. Italian nationalists had long called for the “redemption” of these territories, meaning unification with the rest of Italy by dismemberment of the Habsburg realm.

As tensions mounted in July 1914, Italian Foreign Minister San Giuliano tried to use the crisis to extract territorial concessions from Vienna, warning that Rome couldn’t accept Austro-Hungarian aggression against Serbia unless it received compensation in the form of the Italian provinces. However Emperor Franz Josef refused to negotiate (after all, the whole point of the war was keeping the empire in one piece) and Italy remained neutral.

The majority of the Italian public supported the decision to remain neutral, but a vocal minority favored intervention on the side of the Allies, arguing that now was the time to wrest the Italian provinces from Austria-Hungary and liberate their ethnic kinsmen. Matters were further complicated by the deaths of chief of the general staff Alberto Pollio, who suffered a heart attack on the day Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, and San Giuliano, who died of gout on October 16, 1914. In this confused situation Prime Minister Antonio Salandra (below, left), a foreign policy novice, cautiously embraced a policy of “sacro egoismo,” or “sacred selfishness,” which in effect meant playing the Allies and Central Powers off each other to create a bidding war for Italy’s allegiance.

Wikimedia Commons [1,2]

Behind the scenes both sides were wooing Italy with promises of post-war territorial gains, sincere or otherwise. In the first months of 1915 Austria-Hungary, bowing to German pressure, finally agreed to cede part of the Trentino – but the Allies, already happily slicing up their opponent, countered with offers of the Tyrol and Trieste, and also threw in the Dalmatian coast for good measure (conveniently ignoring the fact that most of the inhabitants here were Slavs, not to mention that they had already promised it to Serbia). Salandra and his cynical Foreign Minister Sidney Sonnino (above, right) were also impressed by the Allied assault on the Dardanelles, which they believed was about to end the war – meaning their window of opportunity was closing.

Glorifying Violence

In early 1915 the Italian government also came under intense political pressure from extreme nationalist, populist, and rightwing groups, including many figures who would later play a key role in the rise of Fascism. Indeed, political violence was becoming commonplace, reflecting the brutal worldview of men like Benito Mussolini, a rabble-rousing journalist who renounced socialism because of its pacifist ideals and founded his own newspaper, Popolo d’Italia, to publicize his pro-intervention views (below, left, Mussolini, with cane, standing next to Filippo Corridoni, another prominent pro-war activist).

In 1915 Mussolini called for war in a series of articles glorifying violence and vilifying political opponents, whom he accused of being paid agents of Austria-Hungary (a nice bit of hypocrisy, as his newspaper was funded by the French government; in 1916, a French government official recalled that Mussolini had “rendered us great service in the spring of 1915.”). Amid mass demonstrations by pro-interventionists, on May 11 Mussolini encouraged attacks against anti-war members of parliament, writing, “for the health of Italy a few dozen deputies should be shot: I repeat shot in the back.” Three days later he predicted chaos if Italy stayed out of the war: “An epoch of individual and collective retaliations will begin. The traitors will pay for their crime in blood.”

Mussolini sounded positively reasonable next to Gabriele D’Annunzio (above, right), an ultra-nationalist author already famous for his sensuous, intoxicating poetry and serial womanizing. After leaving Italy for self-imposed exile in France to escape his debts in 1910, in the spring of 1915 D’Annunzio returned with help from the French government and gave a series of inflammatory speeches, which were republished in the leading rightwing newspaper, Corriere della Serra. In a speech on May 6, 1915, he amplified Mussolini’s calls for attacks against anti-war activists:

If it is a crime to incite the citizens to violence, then I boast of committing that crime. Today the treachery is blatant. We don’t only breathe in its horrid stench, we feel all its appalling weight. And the treachery is being committed in Rome, city of the soul, city of life.

In another speech on May 13, 1915 he returned to the theme, unapologetically inciting criminal violence (below, D’Annunzio addressed the crowd):

If it is considered a crime to incite the citizenry to violence, I glory in that crime, I take it upon myself alone…Every excess of force is allowable, if it avails to prevent the loss of our Fatherland. You have to prevent a handful of pimps and swindlers from sullying and losing Italy.

Secret Treaty, Public Disorder

Unbeknownst to most of D’Annunzio’s listeners, the Italian government had already committed itself to join the Allies with the signing of the Pact of London on April 26, 1915 – the day after the Allied landing at Gallipoli, but well before any news of the disaster started trickling out.

Believing the Allies were about to storm Constantinople, Salandra and Sonnino rushed to sign Italy up before it was too late. In the secret treaty the Allies confirmed their extravagant promises of territory and agreed to loan Italy £50 million on generous terms, along with assurances of war indemnities from the defeated Central Powers. After the war Britain and France came up short on the territory, embittering the Italian elite and setting the stage for the rise of Mussolini’s Fascists – but in the short term they got Italy to sign on the dotted line, opening another front against the Central Powers.

In a typically high-handed move, Salandra and Sonnino had committed Italy to war without consulting Parliament, knowing full well that most ordinary Italians still opposed the idea. However they had some political advantages working for them: for one thing, the Italian constitution technically granted sweeping powers to the king, Victor Emmanuel III, even if he generally chose not to exercise them. Meanwhile the different anti-war groups, including the Liberals led by former Prime Minister Giovanni Giolitti, the socialists, and the Vatican, proved totally unable to set aside their differences in order to present a united front. Simple threats of violence finished the job: amid mounting public disorder anti-war members of Parliament, already labeled traitors by the pro-war demagogues, feared for their own physical safety and that of their families.

On May 20, 1915, with many anti-war members cowed into silence and Giolitti unwilling to challenge the king, Parliament voted 407 to 74 to grant the government authority to finance the war, clearing the way for a declaration of war. On May 22 the government ordered mobilization, and the following day Italian diplomats delivered the final ultimatum to Austria-Hungary – at this point a mere formality. At midnight on May 23 Italy was formally at war.

Thus the Italian government deliberately led the country into the inferno despite the fact that a majority of the public opposed it, as Mussolini himself frankly admitted years later, during the Second World War: “The people’s heart is never in any war. Was the people’s heart in the 1915-1918 war, by any chance? Not in the least. The people were dragged into that war by a minority.”

An Uninspiring Start

Considering how long they had to prepare for it – chief of the general staff Luigi Cadorna started drawing up plans to attack Austria-Hungary in December 1914 – the Italian military’s opening performance in the First World War was unimpressive, if not downright disgraceful. Apparently unable to appreciate the hard lessons learned by other belligerents in the first ten months of the war, Cadorna believed the same tactics of mass infantry assaults would carry the Italians all the way to Vienna in less than two months. This was soon revealed to be a ludicrous fantasy (below, Italian troops leaving Venice).

The initial Italian invasion of Austria was dubbed the “Primo Sbalzo” or “First Leap” but hardly lived up to the name. When fighting began four Italian armies containing around 400,000 men – out of a total mobilized strength of 1.2 million, on paper at least – faced just two Austrian divisions, numbering 25,000 men. But the Italians, believing the Austrians had four times that number, proceeded cautiously at first, giving Austrian chief of the general staff Conrad von Hötzendorf time to rush more defenders to the area from the Balkan front, quiet since the Serbian victory at Kolubara (the Serbs were busy preparing for a long anticipated attack from Bulgaria).


After the declaration of war the Austrians swiftly withdrew to heavily fortified defensive lines, previously prepared some miles from the border at the order of Conrad (who long viewed war with Italy as inevitable), and allowed the enemy to creep forward unopposed. The main advance was left to the Italian Third Army, under the command of General Luigi Zuccari until May 27, when he was abruptly relieved by Cadorna and replaced by Emanuele Filiberto, the Duke of Aosta – the first of literally hundreds of Italian commanders to be cashiered in this fashion by Cadorna, who shared French chief of the general staff Joseph Joffre’s mania for firing unsatisfactory commanders. By the end of May Aosta had advanced to the River Isonzo, fated to be the scene of eleven bloody battles in coming years, but failed to capture the crucial bridges over the river, which were blown up by the retreating Austrians.

To the north the Second Army under Pietro Frugoni, hindered by a lack of artillery, occupied the basin around Caporetto (later the scene of a disastrous Italian defeat in October 1917) but failed to seize the strategic ridges beneath the Carnic Alps. Further west, the Italian First Army under Roberto Brusati launched an ill-advised attack on Austrian defenses along the strategic heights around the city of Trent (which gave its name to the region Trentino) but immediately ran out of steam. Meanwhile the Italian Fourth Army under Luigi Nava occupied the town of Cortina, but for some reason didn’t launch a concerted offensive until the first week of June.

By the time the Italians arrived at the real Austrian defensive lines, Conrad had managed to transfer around 80,000 more troops to the area, which would soon be organized in three defensive formations – a new Austrian Fifth Army guarding the Isonzo River front under a Croatian general, Svetozar Boroević von Bojna, who soon showed himself one of Austria-Hungary’s most talented commanders (above, Austrian troops climbing near the Isonzo); Army Group Rohr, named for its commander General Franz Rohr, who’d been the main organizer of Austrian defenses on the Italian front in April-May 1915; and Home Defense Group Tyrol, under Victor Dankl von Krasnik (below, Austrian troops dug in on the Tyrol).

By mid-June the Italian advance had come to a sudden and inglorious halt at a cost of 11,000 casualties – a relatively modest figure, by the standards of the Great War, but one that was about to spiral out of control. The real bloodshed would begin with the First Battle of the Isonzo from June 23-July 7, 1915.


Political Casualties

In the second half of May 1915 the Great War claimed some of its most prominent political casualties yet, as the Gallipoli debacle and a growing scandal over munitions shortages forced British Prime Minister Herbert Asquith to form a new government and replace Winston Churchill as First Lord of the Admiralty.

As First Lord of the Admiralty, Churchill had been one of the most prominent figures associated with the Allied campaign to capture the Turkish straits, first with a naval assault and then later with the amphibious landings on the Gallipoli Peninsula. In fact, behind closed doors Churchill had prevailed upon First Sea Lord Jackie Fisher, the operational commander of the Royal Navy, to go along with the original plan despite his misgivings. Now both men would pay the price.

Following a bitter dispute at a meeting of the War Council on May 14, 1914, on May 15, Fisher handed in his resignation, to be replaced by Sir Henry Jackson, previously the Third Sea Lord, responsible for naval supplies. Two days later, on May 17 Churchill offered his resignation as First Lord of the Admiralty, and on May 21 Asquith accepted, although Churchill remained in the cabinet as the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, a ceremonial position that however allowed him to listen in on debates. On May 25 Asquith appointed Arthur Balfour, a Conservative former prime minister, as First Lord of the Admiralty as part of a new coalition government.

Asquith was forced to form a new government by public anger over the munitions crisis or “Shell Scandal,” which rocked the British political scene beginning with the publication of a controversial article in The Times on May 14, following the British defeat at Aubers Ridge, which the newspaper attributed to the lack of artillery shells. This in turn raised the issue of the government’s alleged mismanagement of shell production from both public and private manufacturers; Lord Northcliffe, the newspaper titan who owned The Times, was distraught over the death of his nephew at Neuve Chapelle, and personally blamed Secretary of State for War Lord Kitchener for the loss.

Although public opinion rallied around Kitchener for the most part, the enmity of Britain’s most powerful news publisher helped force Asquith to form a new cabinet that included David Lloyd George (above), the Welsh Radical politician and orator who’d previously served as Chancellor of the Exchequer and also criticized Kitchener as old and out of touch. Lloyd George joined the government in the newly created position of Minister of Munitions, with responsibility for speeding up shell production. From here he would rise to become the next Secretary of State for War, and eventually replace Asquith as Prime Minister.

See the previous installment or all entries.

The Very Real Events That Inspired Game of Thrones's Red Wedding

Peter Graham's After the Massacre of Glencoe
Peter Graham's After the Massacre of Glencoe
Peter Graham, Google Cultural Institute, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Ask any Game of Thrones fan to cite a few of the show's most shocking moments, and the so-called "Red Wedding" from season 3's "The Rains of Castamere" episode will likely be at the top of their list. The events that unfolded during the episode shocked fans because of their brutality, but what might be even more surprising to know is that the episode was based on very real events.

Author George R.R. Martin has said that the inspiration for the matrimonial bloodbath is based on two dark events in Scottish history: the Black Dinner of 1440 and 1692's Massacre of Glencoe. “No matter how much I make up, there’s stuff in history that’s just as bad, or worse,” Martin told Entertainment Weekly in 2013. And he’s absolutely right. See for yourself.

The Massacre of Glencoe

The West Highland Way in 2005, view from the summit of the Devil's Staircase looking south over the east end of Glen Coe, towards Buachaille Etive Mòr with Creise and Meall a' Bhuiridh beyond
Colin Souza, Edited by Dave Souza, CC BY-SA 2.5, Wikimedia Commons

In 1691, all Scottish clans were called upon to renounce the deposed King of Scotland, James VII, and swear allegiance to King William of Orange (of William and Mary fame). The chief of each clan had until January 1, 1692, to provide a signed document swearing an oath to William. The Highland Clan MacDonald had two things working against them here. First of all, the Secretary of State, John Dalrymple, was a Lowlander who loathed Clan MacDonald. Secondly, Clan MacDonald had already sworn an oath to James VII and had to wait on him to send word that they were free to break that oath.

Unfortunately, it was December 28 before a messenger arrived with this all-important letter from the former king. That gave Maclain, the chief of the MacDonald clan, just three days to get the newly-signed oath to the Secretary of State.

Maclain was detained for days when he went through Inveraray, the town of the rival Clan Campbell, but still managed to deliver the oath, albeit several days late. The Secretary of State’s legal team wasn't interested in late documents. They rejected the MacDonalds's sworn allegiance to William, and set plans in place to cut the clan down, “root and branch.”

In late January or early February, 120 men under the command of Captain Robert Campbell arrived at the MacDonalds's in Glencoe, claiming to need shelter because a nearby fort was full. The MacDonalds offered their hospitality, as was custom, and the soldiers stayed there for nearly two weeks before Captain Drummond arrived with instructions to “put all to the sword under seventy.”

After playing cards with their victims and wishing them goodnight, the soldiers waited until the MacDonalds were asleep ... then murdered as many men as they could manage. In all, 38 people—some still in their beds—were killed. At least 40 women and children escaped, but fleeing into a blizzard blowing outside as their houses burned down meant that they all died of exposure.

The massacre was considered especially awful because it was “Slaughter Under Trust.” To this day, the door at Clachaig Inn in Glen Coe has a sign on the door that says "No hawkers or Campbells."

The Black Dinner

In November of 1440, the newly-appointed 6th Earl of Douglas, who was just 16, and his little brother David, were invited to join the 10-year-old King of Scotland, James II, for dinner at Edinburgh Castle. But it wasn’t the young King who had invited the Douglas brothers. The invitation had been issued by Sir William Crichton, Chancellor of Scotland, who feared that the Black Douglas (there was another clan called the Red Douglas) were growing too powerful.

As legend has it, the children were all getting along marvelously, enjoying food, entertainment and talking until the end of the dinner, when the head of a black bull was dropped on the table, symbolizing the death of the Black Douglas. The two young Douglases were dragged outside, given a mock trial, found guilty of high treason, and beheaded. It’s said that the Earl pleaded for his brother to be killed first so that the younger boy wouldn’t have to witness his older brother’s beheading.

Sir Walter Scott wrote this of the horrific event:

"Edinburgh Castle, toune and towre,
God grant thou sink for sin!
And that e'en for the black dinner
Earl Douglas gat therein."

This article has been updated for 2019.

15 Game of Thrones Products Every Fan Needs

Kit Harington and Emilia Clarke in Game of Thrones
Kit Harington and Emilia Clarke in Game of Thrones
Helen Sloan, HBO

Though Game of Thrones might be coming to its official end, that doesn’t mean that your fandom can’t—or won’t—carry on. Whether you’re a years-long defender of House Stark or have been rooting for House Targaryen since the beginning, there’s a candle, collectible pin, coffee mug, card game, and pretty much anything else you can imagine with your name (and preferred sigil) on it.

1. A Song of Ice and Fire Book Series; $46

Bantam's 'A Song of Ice and Fire' book series

Bantam, Amazon

If you’ve never read George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, the book series upon which the series is based, plenty more Westerosi drama awaits. And just because you’ve seen every episode of the series 10 times doesn’t mean you know which way the books will turn. (The TV show diverged from their narrative a long time ago—and dozens of the characters who have been killed off on your television screen are still alive and well in the books.) Plus, as Martin has yet to complete the series, you may just catch up in time for the newest book.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Map Marker Wine Stopper Set; $50

Nobody solves a problem like Tyrion Lannister … and his thought process usually includes copious amounts of wine (Dornish if you’ve got it). Something tells us you’re going need some vino yourself to get through the giant, hour-long hole left in your Sunday nights once Game of Thrones officially ends. Make sure you don’t let a drop of it go to waste by keeping one of these six wine stoppers—each one carved to represent the sigil of the most noble houses in the Seven Kingdoms—handy.

Buy it: HBO Shop or BoxLunch

3. Winterfell Coffee Mug; $25

If coffee is more your speed—we get it: the night is dark and full of terrors—this simple-yet-elegant Winterfell mug is an easy way to communicate to your co-workers why you’re typically a little bleary-eyed on Monday mornings.

Buy it: HBO Shop

4. Hodor Door Stop; $12

A 3D-printed Hodor door stop, inspired by 'Game of Thrones'

3D Cauldron, Amazon

An important part of being a Game of Thrones fan is accepting that showrunners D.B. Weiss and David Benioff have no problem killing off your favorite characters, often in brutal ways. One of the series’ most memorable deaths was that of Hodor, Bran Stark’s personal mode of transport, who we loved despite the fact that the only word he ever uttered for six seasons was “Hodor”—and who we loved even more when, in the final moments of his life, we learned why that was the case. Pay tribute to the gentle giant, and his backstory, with this 3D-printed door stop.

Buy it: Amazon

5. Tarot Card Deck; $25

A 'Game of Thrones' tarot card deck, from Chronicle Books

Chronicle Books, Amazon

Channel your inner Maggy the Frog and see what the future holds for you and your loved ones (your enemies, too, if the mood strikes you) with Chronicle Books’s gorgeously packaged tarot card deck. The tarot tradition and Game of Thrones mythology blend seamlessly together in this box of goodies, which includes an instruction book and illustrated cards featuring your favorite characters and most beloved scenes from the show.

Buy it: Amazon or Chronicle Books

6. Fire and Blood Candle; $12

Mad Queen or not, show that you still stand behind the Mother of Dragons by filling your home with this House Targaryen-inspired votive candle. Best of all: Just wait to see the look on the faces of your guests when they ask “Mmmm … what’s that smell?” If you’d prefer not to answer with “fire and blood—doesn’t it smell delicious?,” there are other scents available: one called "Moon of My Life My Sun and Stars," another called "Be a Dragon," and one inspired by the Iron Throne itself (which must smell like victory).

Buy it: HBO Shop

7. Clue: Game of Thrones; $50

Margaery Tyrell with the battle axe in Cersei’s bedchambers. Rewrite the rules—and brutal deaths—of Game of Thrones with this special edition of the classic board game, which tasks you with figuring out who murdered whom, using what weapon, and where the incident took place. A double-sided playing board lets you choose whether you want to set the game in The Red Keep or Meereen.

Buy it: HBO Shop or BoxLunch

8. Game of Thrones Monopoly; $24

'Game of Thrones Monopoly' game board

Hasbro, Amazon

Who wants to be the Lord or Lady of Winterfell when you can become the preeminent real estate mogul of all the Seven Kingdoms? This special-edition Monopoly board puts a distinctly Westerosian twist on the classic game, with silver tokens to represent the sigils of each of the main houses and a card holder that plays the series’ haunting score whenever you press it.

Buy it: Amazon or Best Buy

9. House Stark Hoodie; $60

If you really wanted to dress like a Stark, you’d have a master blacksmith on hand to help customize your armor—or at least turn your IKEA rug into a luxurious cape. If you’re far less crafty, there’s always this full-zip hoodie featuring an embroidered direwolf on the front and an outlined illustration of the same on the back. The minimalist design is a way to show your fandom in a way that, to the untrained eye, might just look like you’re a fan of wolves. But the rest of us will know better. And approve.

Buy it: ThinkGeek

10. Deluxe Iron Throne Funko Pop! Set; $130

Funko's Iron Throne Pop! set of five

Funko, HBO Shop

Though it seems unlikely that a few of these characters will ever sit on the Iron Throne (either because they’re dead or have gone mad), a fan can always hope. And buying them as part of this five-piece set is an easy way to collect them all. If you don’t see your favorite character here, Amazon has got plenty more squat-headed figures to choose from, including Arya, Brienne of Tarth, Rhaegal (poor Rhaegal), and Ghost (poor Ghost). If you ever happen upon a headless Ned Stark Pop!, grab it; this hard-to-find figure can sell for more than $2000 on eBay.

Buy it: HBO Shop

11. Iron Throne Bookend; $60

After devoting more than eight years of your life to seeing Game of Thrones all the way through, maybe it’s you who deserves the Iron Throne. You can’t sit on this 7.5-inch replica, the base of which features sigils from all the noble houses, but you can show off your fancy George R.R. Martin book collection … or all that dragon fan fiction you’ve been working on.

Buy it: Best Buy or the HBO Shop

12. Game of Thrones Music Box; $13

'Game of Thrones' music box

Shenzhen Youtang Trade Co., Amazon

Channel your inner Arya by psyching yourself up with the iconic Game of Thrones theme song whenever you feel the need to hear it with this hand-cranked music box.

Buy it: Amazon

13. Iron Throne Tankard; $70

Show your guests who's boss at your next dinner party—or raucous feast—as you take your place at the head of the table and guzzle your mead (or giant's milk—we don't judge) from this Iron Throne-themed tankard, completed with sword handle.

Buy it: HBO Shop

14. Game of Thrones Socks; $8

It gets cold in the North. Keep your tootsies warm with this six-pack of stylish ankle-cut socks.

Buy it: Target

15. Living Language Dothraki; $16

A copy of the Living Language Dothraki language course

Living Language, Amazon

By now, you've surely learned at least a handful of common Dothraki words and phrases. But if you wan to become fluent in the (fictional) language, this language course is one way to do it. Now: Finne zhavvorsa anni?

Buy it: Amazon

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